In order to understand the basics play of football, you have to understand the downs system.
Now, if you are a complete beginner when it comes to football- pay very close attention. This is very important but it's also where it get's confusing. In order to score like we discussed in Part II, a team has to move down the field to get closer to the end zone. To do this, you have to get a first down. To get a first down, you must move the ball at least ten yards. You have four chances to go those ten yards. If you don't, the other team gets the ball. Let's break it down-
Say the Colts get the ball on their own 30 yard line. (Remember from last time, that means they are on the side of the field that is closest to where the Saints need to be to score.) Thus, they have 70 yards to go to score. From the 30 yard line, they need to get to the 40 yard line to get a first down. They can do this by either running or passing the ball.
This is when you will hear the expression "first and ten." That means it is the first down and they have ten yards to go to get another first down. The ball is placed on the "line of scrimmage," in this case the 30 yard line, and play starts. Here's a simple example of what could happen:
1st and 10: The Colts could do a running play- Peyton will hand the ball to one of his running backs, who will run until he gets tackled. (We'll cover what exactly tackled means in a minute.) Let's say the running back makes it 3 yards from the line of scrimmage. In actuallity he will have run more than 3 yards, but the part that matters is how far he runs past that line of scrimmage. So in this scenario, he makes it to the 33 yard line.
2nd and 7: Now, we are on the second down and they have 7 yards to go before they get another first down. Let's say they run a passing play- Peyton throws the ball to a receiver who tries to catch the ball. (Again, we'll cover what constitutes a catch below). Let's say that the receiver catches the ball on the 37 yard line and is immediately tackled. That would be called a "gain of four yards."
3rd and 3: Here we are at the third down and the Colts only need 3 yards to get the first down. We'll go with Peyton throwing another pass that's caught on the 40 yard line and the receiver then runs another 3 yards for a total gain of 6 yards. This would be a first down. You'll know a first down has occurred when you see the referree turn in the direction that the play is moving and extend his arm straight out.
Once a first down occurs, the game clock stops temporarily for the "chains" to be moved. The Chains are two orange poles connected by a ten yard long chain and a third pole that has a number (one through four) at the top. They are on the side of the field and indicate 1) what down it is, 2) where the beginning and the end of the first down area is, and 3) where the line of scrimmage is. So in our example, the first pole would be placed on the 30 yard line and the second pole would be on the 40 yard line. The third pole is moved along with the line of scrimmage and the number at top is changed to indicate what down it is. So, now the chains will be moved to the 43 yard line. More accurately, the first pole will be on the 43 yard line, the second will be on the Saint's 47 yard line (see what happend there- we crossed the 50 yard line and now the numbers are getting smaller). The third pole will have a one at the top and will be placed next to the first pole on the 43 yard line.
Now, go back to our 3rd and 3. What if when Peyton threw the ball, no one caught it. That would be a gain of no yards. Now we are faced with a 4th and 3. At this point, the question is always will the team "go for it" or will they punt the ball.
First Alternative 4th and 3- "going for it"- If a team does not manage to go ten yards in four downs, they are forced to turn the ball over. So, here the Colts can decide to "go for it" and try and get those three yards for a first down. So, Peyton could hand the ball off to the running back who is immediately tackled for no gain of yards. That would mean that the Saints would have the ball on the Colts' 37 yard line and would only have to go 37 yards to score.
Now, in actuality, teams are not going to "go for it" on a 4th and 3. Especially not if they are only on their 37 yard line. If this had been a 4th and 1 or a 4th and inches (where there is less than a yard for the first down), then they might go for it. It really just depends on the situation- where the ball is, what the score is, etc.
So, if the Colts go for it and get it- great- that's a first down. If they go for it and miss, then the Saints get the ball and it's their turn to go for the first down.
Second alternative 4th and 3- the punt- Now, more likely, in this situation, the Colts would choose to punt the ball. Here the "special teams" take the field and the kicker will come out and drop kick the ball to the other team. A player from the other team will then catch the ball and run as far as he can before he is either tackled, runs out of bounds, or scores. Now the other team has the ball and it's their turn to try and get a first down.
Now the advantage to this over going for it and giving your opponent the ball that way is field position. In the first alternative, the Saints had the ball on the Colts' 37 yard line. In this second alternative, the Saints will likely end up with the ball somewhere in their own territory- 50 yards or more from the end zone they need to reach to score. The result is the same- the other team has the ball, but the likelihood of them scoring is less.
On the other hand, had the ball been on the Saints' 37 yard line instead of the Colts', then the team would have tried for a field goal instead of a punt.
To recap- 4 chances to move 10 yards or you lose the ball. Now, there are some exceptions to that- for example, some penalities have the result of an automatic first down, or there is the rare fumble followed by another fumble that results in a new first down, but these are exceptions that you shouldn't worry about right now.
Running and Catching
As we saw above, the basic way of moving the ball to get the first down or score is to either run or pass the ball.
Running- here the quarterback hands the ball off to one of his backs who will attempt to run the ball as far as he can. It's pretty simple. The player runs until he is tackled or until he is forced out-of-bounds. A player is tackled when an opposing player stops his forward movement or forces the player with the ball to touch the ground with one or both of his knees. The spot at which the player goes down is where the "ball is spotted" and is where the line of scrimmage is moved to. (If the quarterback is tackled while holding the ball, it is called a sack and usually results in a loss of yard- i.e., the line of scrimmage will move backwards.)
Additionally, if a player is running and any part of their foot goes out of bounds, then the play is over. Even if it is just a millimeter of shoe that is touching the white out-of-bounds line, then the play is over. The line of scrimmage moves to where the player went out-of-bounds.
Catching- the alternative to running the ball, is passing and catching the ball. Simply stated, the quarterback throws the ball and a player, likely a wide receiver, catches the ball. Just like in Part II when we discussed catching the ball for a touchdown, a ball is considered caught when the player has control of the ball AND both feet land in-bounds while control of the ball is maintained.
If the player fails to catch the ball, the player is "down" (his knees are touching the ground) when he catches the ball, or the ball touches the ground before the player catches it, it is considered an incomplete pass. This is indicated by the same hand motion as missed field goal- arms extended out and then waved back and forth.
However, sometimes the player doesn't have to actually catch the ball! Sometimes a "pass interference" will be called and the ball is treated as having been caught. I'll be honest with you, sometimes pass interferences still confuses me, but we can get through this together. ;) Let's start with the hand motion- when you see the ref extend his arms straight out, with his hands up and palms out, then you know it's a pass interference call. That's the easy part.
As for what qualifies as a pass interference- at it's simpliest, it is when a defensive player interferes with the offensive player's ability to catch a forward pass. So, say Drew Brees throws the ball to his wide receiver who is being covered by a member of the Colt's defense. Essentially, all that the defensive player can do to stop the wide receiver from catching the ball is to try and catch it himself. He can't push, shove, or block the receiver in an attempt to prevent the catch. For the defensive pass interference to be called, you have to have 1) an eligible receiver (don't worry about what that means), 2) nobody can have touched the ball after it left the quarterback's hands, 3) the defensive player has to some how attempt to interfere with the offensive player's ability to catch the ball, other than catching or deflecting the ball himself, and 4) the pass has to have been catchable in the first place. If the defensive player appears to inadvertently contact the offensive player, then a pass interference is not called. Here are the rules on NFL.com- read at your own risk. There is also offensive pass interference, but I wouldn't worry about that right now.
If a pass interference is called, the ball is spotted at the spot of the foul. So if Drew throws the ball from his own 35 yard line down to the 30 yard line on the opposite end of the field, where the pass interference occurs, that's a gain of 35 yards! If the foul occurs in the end zone, the ball is spotted on the one yard line. If the spot of the foul was less than the one yard line, then it is half the distance between the spot of the foul and the end zone. Additionally, it means an automatic first down.
So now we've learned about scoring and about moving the ball down the field. In Part IV we will learn about penalties! In addition to runs and passes, another way to gain or lose yardage is through penalties by the defense or offense. Penalties are actually a lot of fun to learn about and once you get penalties down, your appreciation for what is going on in the game will increase dramatically. Then you'll be ready for the Big Game on Sunday!